There are some things the Travel Channel and Yelp can’t tell you about Cuban food—especially when it comes to authenticity. Sure, some reviews can give you an idea about the taste and service, but how do you know you’re having the real deal? Authentic Cuban food is much more than a plate of meat, rice and beans—it’s an experience. Foodies should consider the following characteristics when dinning if they really want to eat a lo cubano.
- Ambiance. When you enter a Cuban restaurant, your nose will be greeted by rich aromatic scents from warm dishes at nearby tables. The walls are usually decorated with trinkets, photographs and paintings of Cuban icons. Not to mention, you will have one of two sounds dancing in your ears: music (mostly salsa and mambo) or telenovela dialogues (soap operas.) You will likely encounter friendly, Hispanic waiters that will address you with endearing words such as mi amor or cariño. Even if you don’t speak Spanish, waiters will accommodate you— but be prepared to hear the menu in Spanglish.
- Quantity. Part of Cuban culture is sharing. They share stories, music, laughs and food in abundance. If you are invited to a Cuban home to eat, you will be served seconds and thirds before you even get a chance to say no. It’s not nice to reject food, so eat up! In the restaurant setting, it’s a little different because you are being charged per dish; however, you can definitely expect a large portion of food for a reasonable or inexpensive price—so be prepared to eat. Another way to tell you are eating authentic Cuban food is by the copious amount of oil in your rice and food items. Yup, Cubans love cooking with lots of oil. Don’t worry though, many use olive oil.
- Seasonings. Cuban food is anything but bland. Each dish has a distinct taste to it, depending on the protein, sauce and side dish you select. Many recipes are prepared with cumin, bay leaves, garlic, salt, onions, tomato and green pepper. In fact, meats are usually prepared with sofrito, containing most of the ingredients previously listed. Although seasonings are strong, Cuban food isn’t known to be spicy. In case you want that extra kick in your bite, many restaurants have homemade hot sauce or bottled spice sauces.
- Sweets. You’ve probably heard of flan and arroz con leche (rice pudding)—but if you’re in an authentic Cuban eatery, you will have a wider selection of desserts such as Buñuelos (Cuban doughnut) and Natilla (custard pudding.) If you want to try a Cuban dessert without the restaurant experience, there are plenty of cafés with some of these sweets and a few others such as the famous pastelitos de guayaba/coco/queso.
- Coffee or cortaditos. At the end of a meal you will definitely be offered coffee or a cortadito, which is a Cuban-style espresso with steamed milk. These are especially popular around lunchtime to get your energy up after a big meal. Cubans aren’t the only ones that offer coffee after a meal, but they sure indulge in caffeine.
If you want to check out local, authentic eateries, try the following recommendations: